German Iranians with a passion for start-ups

Creative, courageous, freedom-loving: one in six entrepreneurs in Germany is of migrant origin. Among them are many whose parents originally came from Iran.

Reishunger GmbH - Entrepreneur

Sitting in Bremen University canteen one day, Sohrab Mohammad and fellow student Torben Buttjer poked unenthusiastically at their food, shaking their heads in despair at the unappealing white sludge on their plates: the rice. “Why does rice in Germany always have to be so completely tasteless?”, asked Mohammad. His parents are from Iran, where rice is served up at virtually every meal. “The rice we have is not just there to fill you up, but actually has an intense flavour of the ground it was grown upon”, explains the 33-year-old.

The two friends, who were studying industrial engineering at the time, could not get their lunchtime experience out of their heads. When a report from German consumer organisation Stiftung Warentest then testified a short time later that numerous rice products were of poor quality, it became clear to them that this was a gap in the market. In 2011, they jointly founded a company they named “Reishunger”  (i.e. Rice Hunger). They sell high-quality grains online that they import from the respective countries of origin: basmati rice from India, risotto rice from Italy, sadri rice from Iran. They now employ more than 60 people, and achieved sales of five to six million euros in 2016.

Creating something new

Sohrab Mohammad is one of many entrepreneurs in Germany who have foreign roots. Nowadays this is true of roughly one in six company founders, according to a recently published study conducted by the Institut für Mittelstandsforschung (ifm) and the University of Mannheim. It is noticeable that Iranian names are particularly common in the start-up scene – such as that of Sohrab Mohammad.

33-year-old Sohrab Mohammad knew early on that he wanted to do his own thing. “Even as a teenager I always wanted to create something myself”, he explains. While still at school he ran a small film production company. And he also knows many other German Iranians who are thinking about starting their own business, just like he has. “Perhaps it’s because we are the first generation who are completely free to follow their own paths”, says the Bremen-born entrepreneur.

Pouya Azimi Garakani from Cologne also wanted to have freedom in his work life. In 2011, he launched MobiLab Solutions,  a company offering mobile payment and ordering services. Now employing a staff of 26, his customers include major retail companies, restaurant chains and online sellers. He realised even while still at university how much he valued freedom. “When pursuing academic work you engage with subjects that interest and motivate you”, says Azimi. “I really enjoyed that.” He graduated from university with the highest marks in his year. 

Devoting 15 percent of work time to creativity

These days Pouya Azimi Garakani tries to give his staff certain freedoms in his company. They are allowed to spend up to 15 percent of their work time pursuing their own interests. They use this to blog about new programming languages or to program for open source projects. “The idea is to give them the chance to drive forward their own projects”, explains Garakani.

Now 33, Azimi is proud to call himself a citizen of Cologne, though he also maintains close ties to Iran, his country of origin. Two or three times a year he flies to Teheran, where he not only advises large companies but also supports start-ups in a mentoring capacity. What needs to be considered when structuring a new company? How best can typical mistakes be avoided? What qualities should be required of applicants? He helps Iranian entrepreneurs to answer these and many other questions. “I want to pass on my knowledge and in so doing to build a bridge between Germany and Iran”, says Azimi, going on to explain that he hopes that his activities will facilitate communication and the transfer of knowledge between the two countries. 

A boost for the Iranian economy

It is precisely mentors such as Azimi that are in great demand in Iran. “There are many young people with good ideas here, but they need more knowledge to be able to put them into practice”, says Mohammadreza Azali. He is the co-founder of TechRasa, a Teheran-based company that reports on the start-up scene in Iran and advises foreign companies wishing to enter the Iranian market. In recent years Mohammadreza Azali has observed an upswing in the start-up scene there. “A lot of young people such as students have started their own businesses.” At present, there is a particularly large number of start-ups in the area of e-commerce. A number of fintech companies offering mobile payment solutions are also about to be launched.

The fact that Iran has had faster mobile Internet connections since 2014 has doubtless helped drive this trend. In a country with 75 million inhabitants and an estimated 30 million smartphones, this has given rise to many new opportunities for entrepreneurs. Mohammadreza Azali also expects the lifting of sanctions against Iran to give the country’s economy a boost. “In 2016,  two or three companies from abroad would contact TechRasa each week to find out more about the Iranian market.”

Pouya Azimi Garakani and Sohrab Mohammad are also keen to see their businesses continuing their successful development. Azimi will soon be defending his doctoral thesis, which he has been writing in his spare time. And one of Sohrab Mohammad’s many projects will again be related to his parents’ homeland – he plans to include a Persian rice cooker in his company’s range of products.

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